Joseph Payne Brennan’s “Canavan’s Back Yard”

What do The Real World, Jersey Shore, and every other crappy reality show have in common with The RisingThe Road, and Lord of the Flies?

Both sets—the mind-numbingly stupid as well as the incredibly awesome—demonstrate how human beings can, under the right circumstances, be reduced to snarling, monstrous beasts. When the protective veneer of civility is stripped away, these classic novels and steaming piles of excrement that some consider entertainment tell us, we’re reminded that people, after all, are animals too. And whether it’s a group of English choir boys chanting “Kill the pig” or a pig-faced drunkard butchering the English language, the message remains the same:

We’re beasts at heart.

2011 Pulitzer Prize Nominee, General Non-Fiction Category

Which is one of the reasons why Joseph Payne Brennan‘s “Canavan’s Back Yard” is so darned scary.

I’ve read one collection of Brennan’s work (pictured below), and judging by the book’s fractured spine and dog-eared pages, I’d say I’ve gotten more than my money’s worth. A quick check of Amazon left me aghast to find that the cheapest version of the book you can find—used, no less—is right here.

174 pages of terror and imagination (and slime)

The premise of “Canavan’s Back Yard” is simple (ah, but aren’t most premises? It’s the execution that counts!): a lonely book dealer named Canavan becomes fixated on the view out the rear window of his shop. The yard seems to move…and grow. He wonders where exactly it leads and decides to investigate…

The story is workmanlike in its efficiency and strangely elegant in its structure. Probably the best way to explain it would be by sharing a couple spellbinding passages. After our narrator discovers Canavan gazing out over the back yard for the first time, Canavan turns and looks at his old friend as if he’d never seen him before.

“Then his old easy smile came back, and his blue eyes twinkled behind the square spectacles. He shook his head. ‘That back yard of mind sure looks funny sometimes. You look at it long enough, you think it runs for miles.'”

The tenth horror is the price

Only a page later, the narrator returns, finds Canavan gone, and in an idle moment makes the mistake of staring out the same window.

“I didn’t see Canavan, but as I gazed out over the yard I was swept with a sudden inexplicable sense of desolation which seemed to roll over me like the wave of an icy sea. My initial impulse was to pull away from the window, but something held me. As I stared out over that miserable tangle of briars and brindle grass, I experienced what for want of a better word I can only call curiosity.”

Ah, curiosity. That tantalizing, damning human quality. It’s what lures Canavan out the back door. It’s what compels the narrator to follow him. It’s what leads us to the shattering climax and the chilling denouement.

It’s what makes Canavan part of the unholy fraternity that includes Brian Keene’s feral soldiers, Cormac McCarthy‘s post-apocalyptic cannibals, and William Golding‘s chanting savages. Sure, Brennan’s character might have been prey to supernatural forces, but it sure didn’t take him long to succumb, did it?

Stephen King Already Did It

*By the way, it occurred to me two-thirds of the way through the composition of this blog that Stephen King once wrote about this same story. I know he wrote the introduction to the Brennan collection I own, and I’m pretty sure he talked about the tale in Danse Macabre. When I remembered all this, I almost scrapped the whole blog post, but then I remembered that Stephen King is to horror as The Simpsons are to satire. As the South Park children once observed, every idea under the sun can be filed under the heading, “The Simpsons already did it.” So too can we acknowledge  “Stephen King already did it” and move on without argument. I mean, I love the man, but does he have to write so beautifully about so many topics? Come ON, Mr. King, throw the rest of us a bone here!

2 thoughts on “Joseph Payne Brennan’s “Canavan’s Back Yard”

  1. I saw the first season, I think. Was that the one with Puck? I’ve only seen a few clips here and there since then, but when I have it has seemed like your description. So when do we get to hear more about Evil Eternal? 🙂


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